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In 1894, fire destroyed Hinckley, killing hundreds

historical photo of fire-damaged hinckley
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
View of the Hinckley main street the morning after the fire, 1894.

On September 3, 1894, the headline of the Minneapolis Tribune screamed, “A Cyclone of Wind and Fire: Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin Bathed in a Sea of Flame and Hundreds of Human Lives are Sacrificed to the Insatiable Greed of the Red Demon as He Stalks through the Pine Forest on His Mission of Death.” In just four hours on September 1, the red demon destroyed an estimated 480 square miles, resulting in massive destruction and over 418 deaths. The fire zone lay within Pine County, which was named for its majestic white pine forests.

In 1894, Hinckley was a booming lumber town that lay halfway between St. Paul and Duluth. With a population of about 1500 during the logging season, it had many shops and homes, an opera house, and a new brick school. The Eastern Minnesota and St. Paul and Duluth railroads ran through Hinckley. Although it was named the Hinckley fire, the fire zone extended from Quamba, Brook Park (Pokegama) and Mission Creek to the south of Hinckley and north to Sandstone, Groningen (Miller), Askov (Partridge), and Finlayson.

A fire survivor described Hinckley as occupying “a hole cut in the brush lands and for miles in all directions young trees, huge stumps, and fallen logs covered the land.” This was the “slash” that remained after the land was logged; it was an excellent fire fuel in the dry, hot summer. Fires, often caused by sparks from passing trains, burned in the area all summer long, and residents complained about sore eyes due to the constant smoky air. Until September 1, the fires had been suppressed.

The Hinckley fire began as two separate fires—one south of Mission Creek and the other south of Brook Park. No lives were lost in Mission Creek, but all buildings burned except a log cabin. Seventy-three people survived by taking refuge in a potato field while enduring ash and intense heat. Twenty-three people in Brook Park died when the fire roared through at 2 p.m. The entire town was lost, including the new schoolhouse. Survivors said that the fire made a rumbling sound as it reached the town with its superheated air and wind-driven fire balls.

The fires merged together south of Hinckley, and witnesses described it as a tornado of fire or firestorm. The volunteer fire department deployed its new steam fire engine but abandoned the fight when the fire overcame them and burned through the hose. Some residents had left town on the noon train; many others started packing their belongings to escape either by the afternoon trains or by wagon. By 3:30 p.m., people began a desperate run to save their lives. One hundred people reached the shallow water of a gravel pit and survived by submerging themselves while enduring intense heat and fire. Another hundred died of suffocation in a swamp. Many suffocated while taking refuge in root cellars and wells or died when the fire overcame them.

At about 4:00 p.m., evacuation by train began. The Eastern Minnesota train left Hinckley with about four hundred fire refugees added to its existing passengers. Witnesses reported people on fire running after it as it left. Near Sandstone, the train crossed the burning bridge over the Kettle River just minutes before it collapsed. The St. Paul and Duluth Railway train left Hinckley with over 300 refugees. Hit by an explosion, the train caught on fire but managed to reach Skunk Lake where the people took refuge in the water. The trains’ engineers (James Root, William Best, and Edward Barry) and crews were honored as heroes.

Many survivors had severe burns, and some died of their injuries. Many had eyes swollen shut and were unable to see. Heavy wool clothing saved one young woman, since it did not burn as easily as cotton.

Many communities provided immediate relief and shelter for the survivors, including Pine City, Mora, Duluth, and Superior. On September 3, a state fire relief commission was appointed to manage the recovery. Contributions were received from around the world, including 500 pairs of shoes from the Montgomery Ward Company.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 03/23/2020 - 09:32 am.

    Surely at the time a few people looked around at the landscape and raised alarms, prior to the fire. A testament to how the economic status quo tends to blind people to impending tragedy due to there treatment of the earth.

    As with the corona virus, writers as diverse as Laurie Garrett, Jared Diamond and Joseph Tainter have pointed out for decades that this sort of thing is inevitable in the advance of civilization into complexity, and indifference to ecological rules – it is only a matter of when, and will we be prepared or not. Clearly we were not prepared.

    We ignore ecology at our peril…

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